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Cannabis Now Has Its Own Congressional Caucus

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Amid widespread uncertainty about how the Trump administration will handle state-legal cannabis, a group of federal lawmakers on Thursday announced the formation of a Congressional Cannabis Caucus. The bipartisan group hopes to validate the nation’s burgeoning cannabis industry and encourage a more harmonious relationship between states and the federal government.

With dozens of issue-specific caucuses scattered throughout Congress, on everything from chicken to dyslexia, a caucus on cannabis is not a far-fetched idea. Some might even say it’s overdue.

'We are trying to make sure that we bring the marijuana issue to Washington, up to the next level.'
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, (R-Calif.)

“We are trying to make sure that we bring the marijuana issue to Washington, up to the next level,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a founding member of the caucus, told Leafly. “We’ve been very successful the last three or four years in establishing the states’ rights argument and recruiting a coalition behind that argument, [with] a majority of states supporting legal medical marijuana.”

Along with Rohrabacher, other caucus co-founders include Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore., pictured above), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), and Don Young (R-Alaska).

Rohrabacher’s name is already on one of the most important pieces of federal cannabis legislation, the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, a spending provision that bars the Justice Department from prosecuting state-legal medical marijuana businesses. The provision is set to expire in April.

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“The question,” said Rohrahbacher, “is how do we build on having Congress accept the proposition that the federal government shouldn’t interfere with states that legalized medical marijuana?”

At Thursday’s press conference, Blumenauer described the caucus’s top-level goals:

  • Pass legislation enabling cannabis research
  • Ensure veterans have access to medical marijuana
  • Iron out practical business needs, including tax code 280E (which prohibits business expense deductions) and the prohibition on cannabis businesses from working with banks, which forces them to deal all in cash.

The caucus also aims to expand safeguards for adult-use cannabis programs in legal states and prevent cannabis industry members from being thrown in jail.

“We want to get policies in place that reflect the major change in attitude among American people, as seen throughout the states where cannabis is no longer considered this horrible threat to well-being,” Rohrabacher said.

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Among many of the advocates who’ve worked for decades to see cannabis reform at the federal level, the Cannabis Caucus is a symbol of validation.

“It’s almost like marijuana’s coming out moment,” Michael Collins, deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told Leafly. “The fact that there’s a caucus and there will be a group of members of Congress dedicated to this means it moved from a peripheral issue to a priority issue.” It’s also a sign that federal officials increasingly see prohibition as unsustainable, he added.

One bill already introduced is House Resolution 975, which Rohrabacher, the bill’s sponsor, calls the Respect State Marijuana Law Act of 2017. The proposal would bar the federal government from interfering with or suppressing state cannabis programs or targeting business operators who are in compliance with state laws. It also aims to ease banking restrictions.

'We don't want to be in a place relying on the goodwill of the attorney general. That's why we're pursuing statutory changes.'
Rep. Jared Polis, (D-Colo.)

But while the launch of the caucus signals a shift among some federal lawmakers, it also indirectly addressed the fear that the Trump administration and newly confirmed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions could eventually move to crack down on state-legal cannabis programs.

“We don’t want to be in a place relying on the goodwill of the attorney general,” Polis, of Colorado, said at Thursday’s event. “That’s why we’re pursuing statutory changes.”

Though Trump has expressed support of states’ rights, his nomination of an historically anti-cannabis attorney general has raised questions about the extent to which he’ll allow state programs to continue. Advocates say there are good reasons for the federal government to avoid interfering.

“In the nine states where it was on the ballot, marijuana got more votes than Donald Trump,” said Blumenauer. “And millions of Trump voters voted for changing marijuana laws.”

For Republicans, Young pointed out at the press conference, the ability for states to dictate their own cannabis policies should hold particular appeal. “You can’t be a conservative and pick and choose,” he said. “You have to be for states’ rights or against states’ rights,” he said.

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While the launch of the caucus is a welcome sign to cannabis advocates, many are still worried. “Something as simple as the Justice Department sending out letters to recreational states or threatening to enforce federal prohibition could cause states to shut down their tax-and-regulate structures,” said Justin Strekal, political director for NORML. “I don’t expect my worst-case scenario to play out, but I do see it as very bleak. We could see a swift rollback of victories we’ve earned in legal states.”

For many members of Congress, supporting the caucus should be a “no brainer,” says Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance. Lawmakers should prioritize their constituents’ interests, he said. “No member of Congress in their right mind would say they want the federal government to shut down something that the people have voted for or which a state legislature passed.”

He predicted the caucus will serve a largely educational role in Congress and provide like-minded members a place to strategize. He also hopes that the body will increase in diversity as it grows, attracting congressional representatives of color as well as lawmakers focused on the racial justice side of legalization. “I think if there is a crackdown on marijuana legalization, the caucus will be a place for conversation about the response,” he said. “You can potentially see letters being drafted, a hearing, or direct conversations with Jeff Sessions.”

'We’ve had good experiences working with members of Congress on addressing specific issues for the industry, like banking and 280E taxation.'
Taylor West, National Cannabis Industry Association

The formal body could also help representatives be more cooperative and efficient in their reform efforts. “One of the most important things the caucus is going to do is provide an opportunity for better coordination among supportive lawmakers, so, for example, there’s not like five different bills to fix banking,” said Tom Angell, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority. “The members can carefully craft language that all the supportive legislators can get behind in a unified way.”

Policy wonks as well as industry players are hopeful. “We’ve had good experiences working with members of Congress on addressing specific issues for the industry, like banking and 280E taxation,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the DC-based National Cannabis Industry Association. “The growth of the industry shows that there is a lot of legitimate economic impact to be considered.”

Already, the legal cannabis industry is estimated to support more than 122,000 full-time jobs in the 29 legal states and Washington, DC.

“We’re seeing tremendous progress, not just in a bipartisan way but also in a numbers way,” West said. The four states that passed medical marijuana laws this past election, for example, all voted Republican in the presidential race.

“It crosses party lines,” West said of the growing legalization movement. “In states where we have established regulated medical or adult-use programs, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of success. By and large these programs are implemented safely, cut down on the criminal market, and put in responsible business people.”

Patients in need of medical marijuana are suffering, Rohrabacher said at Thursday’s launch, detailing anecdotes about veterans and elderly individuals he’s seen who’ve benefitted from legal cannabis. Rohrabacher himself even used a cannabis topical to ease pain in his shoulder following surgery.

“The law is wrong,” he said. “We have a bipartisan caucus. We’re going to change that situation.”